TUES: Governor Touts Virus Progress Against Critics, Rail Runner Resuming Service, + More

Mar 2, 2021

New Mexico Governor Touts Progress On Virus, Draws Criticism - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is touting her administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying the state stepped up last year with direct economic aid and is looking to provide more relief through pending legislation.

She spoke Tuesday during an online forum, acknowledging that the pandemic has been a cruel hardship. Critics have accused her of ignoring her own policies and spending thousands of dollars on groceries while many New Mexicans remain without jobs and businesses have yet to recover.

The Republican Governors Association on Monday launched a week of digital ads targeting the governor, and Republican leaders in the state say Lujan Grisham's choices have had unfortunate results.

The governor said Tuesday providing more resources to businesses will be key, and more investments will be needed to ensure economic opportunities don't evaporate.

Steve Pearce, chairman of the state Republican Party, said the governor in crafting the public health restrictions created a system that benefited out-of-state corporations. He said small local businesses have been left trying to catch up on loan payments and find ways to boost customer traffic.

Lujan Grisham's office said the governor's decisions have been based on what she believes to be in the best interest of New Mexicans based on data and input from epidemiologists and public health experts.

Spread rates and the weekly rolling average of new COVID-19 infections have declined in New Mexico in recent weeks. The additional confirmed cases reported by state health officials Monday marked one of the lowest levels since September.

Lujan Grisham touted New Mexico's vaccination rollout, saying it continues to be one of the top in country and the focus is on getting doses to vulnerable communities.

The plan is to funnel about one quarter of the state's allocation to those most at risk based on socio-economic conditions, minority status and other factors. Lujan Grisham said addressing populations that have higher mortality rates and less access to health care will help save more lives and keep more people from being hospitalized.

The state expects those efforts to ramp up with the arrival this week of the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine.

Data from the state shows more than 671,000 have registered to receive shots, while about 217,000 people have been fully vaccinated.

Senate Advances Bill To Cap Small Loan Rates In New Mexico - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

A bill capping interest rates at 36% annually for short-term, low-dollar loans has cleared the New Mexico Senate.

Democrats say it will further reduce lending they describe as predatory. Republicans and one Democrat opposing the bill called it out of touch, arguing that on a monthly basis, the bill will cap loans to 3% and largely eliminate access to credit for the poor and unbanked.

Currently, lenders can charge as much as 175% on loans of $5,000 or less.

Supporters of the bill say that local nonprofit organizations and credit unions are increasingly lending to those in need.

The bill passed the Senate largely along party lines in a 25-14 vote. It now heads to the House, where it's expected to pass.

Democratic Rep. Susan Herrera of Embudo said that aggressive lobbying from the storefront short-term loan industry had delayed the bill, adding that the industry makes a lot of campaign donations but that senators sworn in this year turned the tide.

Jason Weeks, a lobbyist representing affected loan businesses, did not immediately respond to requests for comment before and after the vote.

New Mexico Debates Longer School Year Mandate, Virus Make-Up - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

The New Mexico legislature is exploring two different ways to make sure kids spend more time in class next year, in an effort to help students catch up from the loss of learning during the pandemic.

Democrats in the Senate have advanced a bill that would require all schools to tap into an existing $200 million fund to extend the school calendar next year.

The one-year mandate would only take effect if the governor's current in-person learning restrictions are lifted. Teachers would have to stick with their students for an additional 10 to 25 days depending on the grade level and would be paid for the extra time.

A bipartisan bill in the House would allow that time to be used in longer days instead. It conflicts with the Senate bill, signaling a potential logjam at the end of the legislative session this month.

The New Mexico School Superintendant's Association supports the House bill for its flexibility, and is backing the Senate bill after President Pro Tem Sen. Mimi Stewart made tweaks to accommodate four-day schools.

Lujan Grisham's Public Education Department wants more schools to embrace the programs. But the department isn't weighing in on a particular approach.

New Mexico Commuter Train Resumes Service After ShutdownAssociated Press

New Mexico's commuter system linking metro Albuquerque with Santa Fe will resume service next Monday after being shut down for nearly a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rail Runner officials said the system will initially provide limited service and resume operations with fewer trains and weekday service only. Each train will be limited to 25% capacity, or about 160 passengers per train.

Officials said the limited capacity should satisfy initial demand in part because many regular riders are still working from home. The train system was shut down on March 17, 2020.

Crews have operated occasional trains without passengers during the shutdown to avoid equipment and personnel from staying idle. The shutdown also allowed tryouts of a new federally required safety system to help avoid accidents.

The transit district received $55 million through the federal CARES Act, which helped avoid layoffs and furloughs of Rail Runner staff.

New Mexico Details Its Request For Student Testing Waiver - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico education officials have released details of a request to the federal government to waive some standardized testing requirements this year due to the pandemic.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Education, they ask for an exemption from the requirement to test 95% of students. Instead, they want to test at least 1% of students and gather a representative sample.

Officials say testing even half the student population would be challenging under the virus restrictions. Under the plan, the state would provide all families the option to have their students tested this spring, but not require them to do so.

The recent clarification followed a statement made in January in which the department said it would request a waiver to allow schools and districts to skip high-stakes student assessments again this spring, shifting instead to optional testing.

Following requests by The Associated Press, the Public Education Department on Thursday released a letter it sent to the Department of Education that included specifics of its waiver request.

New Mexico May Discipline, Fine Workers Who Release Records - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico's Senate has approved a bill that would allow state employees to be fired or fined up to $5,000 for identifying people who receive public benefits or releasing information about an individual's immigration status, national origin, religion or sexual orientation.

The bill from Democratic state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Rep. Miguel Garcia of Albuquerque is backed by advocacy groups for immigrant communities. 

The bill advanced on a 34-6 vote of the Senate over the objections of government transparency advocates and the state attorney general's office that oversees education and enforcement of the state Inspection of Public Records Act. State health officials still worry the bill could interfere with the sharing of data among government agencies.

Five Republicans voted against the initiative along with Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque, an openly gay legislator who sought tougher legal consequences for disclosures of confidential information.

Sedillo Lopez has dismissed opposition to the bill by a government transparency group as disappointing and odd.

"What this bill will do is it will protect all of our information," Sedillo Lopez said Monday. "State employees will now get trained about what information is confidential and state employees will also know that there are consequences."

The bill would prohibit state employees from intentionally disclosing "sensitive personal information" with exceptions for judicial proceedings, necessary state functions, federal subpoenas, whistleblower lawsuits on government wrongdoing, health insurance access and requests made under the state Inspection of Public Records Act. 

The state attorney general's office says the reforms would inject ambiguity into disclosure statutes for public documents.

Enforcement of the initiative would fall to the state attorney general, district attorneys and the State Ethics Commission, with fines of up to $250 per violation and up to $5,000 combined, along with possible disciplinary action.

New Mexico To Resume Horse Racing As Virus Restrictions Ease - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The commission that oversees horse racing in New Mexico says live racing is set to resume in April now that public health restrictions are being eased.

The tracks and their associated casinos were hit hard by the pandemic. Without revenue from slot machines and tables, purse money was reduced last year to a fraction of what it was in 2019.

The Racing Commission said Monday that purse accounts are expected to experience an influx not seen in nearly a year.

State health officials say reduced positivity rates and daily case totals are clearing the way for more economic activity.

Under the revised public health order issued last week by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, large entertainment venues such as racetracks will be permitted to operate depending on whether the counties in which they are located meet the state's benchmarks for COVID-19 positivity rates and new per-capita cases.

Regional transportation officials also announced that limited service on the state's commuter rail — the New Mexico Rail Runner Express — will resume next week. Masks will be required and the train cars will be cleaned throughout the day.

Spread rates and daily cases have been on a downward trend in New Mexico. In all, health officials have reported more than 185,000 confirmed infections since the pandemic began, and the statewide death toll recently topped 3,700.

While more vaccine doses are being shipped to New Mexico, officials say supplies still are not keeping up with demand. About 668,000 people have registered for shots.

Of the more than 590,300 doses that have been administered since the campaign began, state data shows about 13% were given within the last seven days.

Navajo Nation Confirms 12 New COVID-19 Cases, No New Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Monday reported 12 new coronavirus cases but no additional deaths. 

The latest figures bring the total number of COVID-19 cases to 29,754 cases since the pandemic began. 

The death toll stands at 1,170. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez cautioned in a statement that people should not become complacent just because case numbers continue to trend downward. 

Health facilities on the reservation and in border towns are conducting drive-thru vaccine events or administering doses by appointment. 

The Navajo-area Indian Health Service has vaccinated more than 100,000 people so far.

New Mexico Regulators Want More Details On Power Plant Sale - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico's largest electric provider must file an amended application with state regulators who will determine whether it can transfer its shares in a coal-fired power plant to an energy company backed by the Navajo Nation.

Regulators say Public Service Co. of New Mexico's application to abandon its stake in the Four Corners Power Plant was insufficient and doesn't go far enough in explaining whether the transaction would benefit the public.

The utility has until March 15 to submit a revamped application and additional evidence.

Environmentalists have concerns about the sale, saying it runs counter to a New Mexico law aimed at ending fossil fuel electricity generation.

PNM's abandonment request seeks to recover $300 million it has invested in Four Corners using low-cost bonds that would be paid off by utility customers.

PNM is defending its past investments in Four Corners. In filings with the Public Regulation Commission, the utility said it supports including additional information in the pending abandonment case as well as supplemental testimony regarding the effect of the Energy Transition Act on considerations related to the prudence of its investments.

PNM also has argued that using low-cost bonds to recover its investments and replacing coal with cheaper renewable generation could save customers anywhere from $30 million to $300 million over time compared to remaining in Four Corners until 2031.

The amount saved would depend on the costs of whatever replacement power is ultimately approved by state regulators.

Mariel Nanasi, a longtime PNM critic and executive director of New Energy Economy, called the power plant a toxic liability. She accused PNM of mismanagement for deciding several years ago to spend more money on the plant despite growing liabilities linked to fossil fuel generation.

NMSU Remains Against Declaring Campus A Sanctuary Las Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press

New Mexico State University is rejecting requests that the Las Cruces campus take on sanctuary status for students who are in the country illegally.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported Sunday that officials declined formal proposals from the Associated Students of NMSU and the Faculty Senate to establish a sanctuary declaration.

Proponents of NMSU being a sanctuary campus say it would protect students and faculty who are Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients — people brought to the U.S. illegally as children. They say it would also help international students feel safer.

NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu said in a campus-wide email late last week that the school's stance on the matter has not changed.

Arvizu also said the school already has other policies in place that protect students who don't have legal immigration status. They include not making proof of citizenship a factor in admission and not releasing private information without consent or a legal mandate.

Furthermore, campus police and security cannot detain someone solely because of suspicions about their citizenship.

Santa Fe Community College remains the only New Mexico school to declare itself as a sanctuary campus.

Boy Scouts Submit Reorganization Plan To Bankruptcy Court - By Randall Chase Associated Press

The Boy Scouts of America submitted a bankruptcy reorganization plan Monday that envisions continued operations of its local troops and national adventure camps but leaves many unanswered questions about how it will resolve tens of thousands of sexual abuse claims by former Boy Scouts

The plan was filed Monday in Delaware bankruptcy court, even though the BSA remains in intense negotiations with insurers who face substantial exposure for sexual abuse claims, and with the official committee representing abuse victims.

The plan calls for a $300 million contribution from the Boy Scouts' 250-odd local councils into a trust for abuse victims, although the form and timing of those contributions remain up in the air. The Boy Scouts also say any unrestricted cash above the $75 million the organization claims it will need for operations when it emerges from bankruptcy will go into the trust fund. The BSA also has agreed to contribute its collection of Norman Rockwell paintings to the fund, and to sell a warehouse facility in North Carolina, a Scouting University facility in Texas, and rights to oil and gas interests on properties in 17 states.

"The plan demonstrates that considerable progress has been made as we continue to work with all parties toward achieving our strategy to provide equitable compensation for victims and address our other financial obligations so that we can continue to serve youth for years to come," the Boy Scouts said in a prepared statement.

"In the coming months, supplements to the plan will include a more detailed breakdown of the process to compensate survivors and more details about how local councils will support this effort," the statement adds.

Paul Mones, an attorney representing hundreds of former Scouts, called the plan "woefully and tragically inadequate."

"The problem is that the Boy Scouts are not willing to dig deep enough for the deep pain they caused," he said.

"They are shifting the responsibility to the insurance companies, creating a situation for the survivors to engage in obviously protracted litigation to obtain the just compensation they deserve," Mones added. "The BSA basically wants to walk away unscathed from this."

The Boy Scouts of America, based in Irving, Texas, sought bankruptcy protection last February in an effort to halt hundreds of individual lawsuits and create a compensation fund for men who were molested as youngsters decades ago by scoutmasters or other leaders.

The councils, which run day-to-day operations for local troops, are not listed as debtors in the bankruptcy and are considered by the Boy Scouts to be legally separate entities, even though they share insurance policies and are considered "related parties" in the bankruptcy case.

Attorneys for abuse victims made it clear from the onset of the bankruptcy that they would go after campsites and other properties and assets owned by councils to contribute to a settlement fund.

"I think the Boy Scouts have a responsibility here to make sure those men are taken care of," Mones said.

The plan does not reflect any agreements with BSA insurers or estimates of their potential liabilities but does state that the rights to policies and insurance proceeds would go into the trust.

Lawyers for the BSA's insurance companies have argued that they should be allowed to serve document requests on 1,400 people who have filed sexual abuse claims and to question scores of them under oath in an effort to determine whether there has been widespread fraud in the claims process. The judge has yet to rule on that request.

Tancred Schiavoni, an attorney for one of the BSA insurers, Century Indemnity, said Monday that his client supports a fair resolution for abuse victims, "but this plan doesn't get us there."

"The court needs to first implement a process to root out the bad claims generated by for-profit claims aggregators and misleading advertising campaigns," Schiavoni said in a prepared statement.

More than 95,000 sexual abuse claims have been filed in the bankruptcy case. 

Before the bankruptcy filing, the BSA had been named in about 275 lawsuits and told insurers it was aware of another 1,400 claims. The number of lawsuits has more than tripled in the past year to roughly 860 case in more than 110 state and federal courts. Some 600 of the lawsuits were filed after the Boy Scouts asked the bankruptcy judge for a preliminary injunction halting lawsuits against local councils and sponsoring organizations.

Attorneys for the Boy Scouts are continuing to try to resolve disputes with the official tort claimants committee over the amount of BSA and local council assets that might be available for abuse victims.

The committee has complained about a lack cooperation by local councils in response to its requests for information about their financial assets. The committee also filed an adversary action in the bankruptcy case in January challenging BSA's contention that two-thirds of its listed $1 billion in assets, more than $667 million, are "restricted" and unavailable for creditors.

More than half of the purportedly restricted assets, $345.4 million, consists of a note receivable from Arrow WV, a nonprofit entity that was formed by the BSA in 2009 and which owns the Summit Bechtel Reserve in West Virginia, home to the National Scout Jamboree. The BSA leases the Summit from Arrow WV and provides the services required for its operation. Other purportedly restricted assets include three "High Adventure" facilities valued at more than $63 million. They are the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, the Northern Tier in Minnesota and the Florida Sea Base. 

The tort claimants committee contends that there is no restriction that could be applied to the Arrow WV note, and that there are no specific deed restrictions or donor restrictions that preclude the sale of the High Adventure facilities and use of the proceeds to pay creditors. 

Meanwhile, a court-appointed panel of mediators submitted a court filing Monday night indicating that the Boy Scouts have reached settlements with the official committee of unsecured creditors and with JPMorgan Chase, the organization's senior secured lender. 

The BSA has agreed to set aside $25 million to pay non-abuse general unsecured claims. JPMorgan, which holds allowed claims of more than $328 million, has agreed to extend the maturity on its debt to 10 years after the effective date of the bankruptcy plan. It also has agreed to forego principal and interest payments until two years after the effective date. 

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